In 2017, the Religious Worlds of Late Antiquity SBL section organized a review panel to discuss Todd Berzon's Classifying Christians: Ethnography, Heresiology, and the Limits of Knowledge in Late Antiquity. During the month of July, AJR will feature the panelists' responses.
“Christian ethnography, like all ethnography, is a study in contrasts.”
Whereas many studies of early Christianity have plumbed critical ethnography for theoretical insights or unlikely comparanda, Todd Berzon’s Classifying Christians: Ethnography, Heresiology, and the Limits of Knowledge in Late Antiquity redescribes Christian heresiology as ethnography, a tantalizing yet elusive subject for scholars of antiquity. Unlike the modern concept, ancient ethnography lacked a defined methodology or fixed genre. Notwithstanding this lack of formal convention, the Greco-Roman literary record discloses a pervasive “ethnographic disposition,” an impulse for the collection, categorization, and theorization of knowledge about the contours of the inhabited world. Writers of this ilk were especially prolific under the Roman Empire, the unprecedented breadth and heterogeneity of which piqued not only comparison but also efforts to account for its diversity. And whatever their precise form or content, such ethnographic ventures were no idle meditations on human difference: to write peoples and their distinctive cultural practices was to map a world emanating and calibrated from the author’s own normative (sc. superior) vantage point. Ancient ethnography, and heresiology as a subset thereof, was an inherently selective and self-interested exercise.
Berzon traces affinities between ethnographers of the ancient Mediterranean and six heresiologists aligned with orthodox tradition: Irenaeus of Lyons, Hippolytus of Rome, Tertullian of Carthage, Epiphanius of Salamis, Augustine of Hippo, and Theodoret of Cyrrhus. “The development of [a Christian] orthodox culture—with its own rules, hermeneutics, signs, and symbols—[was],” he argues, “constructed not simply in oppositional terms but in oppositional ethnographic terms” (96). The heresiologists’ particular inflection was to organize the worlds they mapped in accordance with what people believed and practiced in relation to such beliefs. Posturing as encyclopedists of Christian diversity, the heresiologists operated instead as the discursive architects of a Christian oikoumenē whose contours they delimited not, or not only, by climate or etiology or phenotype but, foremost, by theological inclination. In Berzon’s words, theology functioned for these authors as an “ethnographic sorting device,” one that they employed both macroscopically, to theorize the origins and trajectory of heresy as a whole, and also microscopically, to catalogue the minutiae of the habits, customs, and dispositions of known (or invented) heretical groups. And insofar as their genealogies of heresy were hewn from the assorted intellectual traditions and disciplines—astrology, divination, philosophy, numerology, and mythology—that had enticed the heretics away from true Christianity, to expose their errors was to undermine the alternative ethnographic paradigms in which these errors were ostensibly rooted.
The vantage point from which the heresiologists wrote was, of course, that of vera religio, and their comparative endeavors were as much about fostering the image of a unified Christian culture as they were about excluding errant doctrine and praxis from its limits. Heresy was the mirror image of this project, although not without generating certain paradoxes. On the one hand, the mere existence of heretics complicated the notion of a singular Christian truth; on the other—and not unlike the ideologies undergirding more recent instances of imperialism—collating knowledge about these groups justified their exposure as a means of future rectification. As Berzon notes, heresiologists and Victorian anthropologists alike reduced the cultural, religious, and theological complexities and behavioral nuances of the peoples they wrote to generalities, dispositions, and stereotypes.
As these gestures to the early modern period suggest, Classifying Christians is further notable for demonstrating the relevance of Christian heresiology to the wider academic study of religion. Although Berzon has been known to deny that he is a historian (as he did more than once on our panel), he manages, perhaps in spite of himself, to trace the gradual conflation of ethnography and theology to the point when, in the world of Christian late antiquity, the two discourses became one and the same. The implications of this particular—dare I say historical—argument extend well beyond antiquity. For, while Berzon makes ample and productive use throughout the book of scholarship on the formation of critical ethnography and anthropology as modern disciplines, his interdisciplinary dialogue is a two-way street: the enduring legacy of theological ethnography is evident in examples ranging from the conceptual categories and ideological stances of colonial missionaries and Victorian anthropologists to the much-critiqued Christo-centrism of the modern concept of religion.
Classifying Christians gestures toward as many frontiers of scholarly engagement as it captures others charting. To explore some of these possibilities, the Religious Worlds of Late Antiquity organized a review panel for the book at the 2017 Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting and invited three scholars with varied perspectives, approaches, and specialty to engage critically with Berzon’s arguments and elaborate them in view of new evidence or theoretical materials. We are grateful to Mira Balberg, Benjamin Dunning, and Ellen Muehlberger for delivering rich, thought-provoking papers and to Todd Berzon himself for responding in kind.
Todd Berzon, Classifying Christians, 96.
Heidi Wendt is an assistant professor of Religions of the Greco-Roman World at McGill University, jointly appointed in the School of Religious Studies and the Department of History and Classical Studies. Her first monograph, At the Temple Gates: The Religion of Freelance Experts in the Roman Empire (Oxford: 2016), examines evidence for the rise of self-authorized religious specialists in the first two centuries.